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OpinionColumnistsLeonard Levitt

Smollett case is a reminder of a 1980s hoax

Al Sharpton perpetuated a fake story about a racially motivated sexual attack on a 15-year-old girl.

Rev Al Sharpton speaks during a news conference

Rev Al Sharpton speaks during a news conference at the midtown office of Sen Kirsten Gillibrand on Dec. 16, 2018. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Was that the Rev. Al Sharpton calling out actor Jussie Smollett, saying the now-former “Empire” star should face “accountability to the maximum” if he faked a bias attack in Chicago last month?

“Whoever is wrong should pay the maximum,” Sharpton said after having lunch with Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris at Sylvia’s, the landmark Harlem restaurant. The California senator already had called the so-called attack on Smollett an “attempted modern day lynching.”

“If Smollett is wrong, he ought to face accountability to the maximum,” Sharpton said. Chicago authorities have charged Smollett with staging an attack that the actor cast as a racist and homophobic hate crime.

Was Sharpton being facetious, or did he think people had forgotten that he perpetuated a racial hoax more than 30 years ago: that four white men attacked Tawana Brawley, who is African-American?

For anyone who might have forgotten or don’t know: Brawley was a Dutchess County 15-year-old who went missing for four days in 1987. She was found inside a plastic bag, feces in her hair, the N-word scrawled on her stomach. She claimed the white men in KKK regalia — one of whom she recognized as a police officer — had raped and sodomized her. A grand jury report under the auspices of the state’s attorney general’s office found Brawley’s story to be a lie.

Sharpton specifically accused Assistant Dutchess County Attorney Steven Pagones as one of Brawley’s attackers. After Pagones won a defamation suit against Sharpton and two of Brawley’s attorneys, Sharpton had failed to pay his share of the award. Unless I missed it, the closest Sharpton has come to an apology or repentance is stating: “A lot of the rhetoric, including mine, went too far.”

In Chicago, Smollett claimed that after leaving a Subway restaurant around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, he was attacked by two men, whom he claimed used racial and homophobic slurs and slipped a noose around his neck.

Chicago police called Smollett’s claim “pure fiction” and a publicity stunt to generate a higher salary from “Empire.” Last Thursday, Smollett turned himself in on several charges, including a felony count of having filed a false police report.

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